The following article about hawthorn appeared in the February, 2014 issue of Natural Herbal Living Magazine.
Hawthorn Opening the Chest
Traditionally, we associate Hawthorn with the physical heart – and it is an excellent heart tonic – but it has wider use as a remedy to “open the chest.”
“Opening the chest” is a concept from Traditional Chinese Medicine that refers to the physical and the emotional/metaphoric chest. To understand what this means, take a moment to feel inside your own chest. How are you breathing? Are the breaths deep, shallow, or in- between? Do your ribs float freely, or do they feel constrained? Are you aware of your heart? Do you feel as if a small animal, an elephant, or even the whole world were sitting on your chest? Take another moment to register what emotions may be stuck in there. Are there things that you need to get off your chest? Feelings that you haven’t felt free to talk about, or that you feel you may talk about until you’re blue in the face but still can’t resolve? Grief, perhaps? Or anger, worry, anxiety, obsessive thinking, or even joy that hasn’t been fully expressed? When the emotions are stuck, it means the Qi is stuck, which may, in turn, lead to physical symptoms as well. These physical manifestations of stagnant Qi are not psychosomatic; they are simply the consequences of a disruption to the smooth flow of energy through the body.
All of those ideas are packed into the TCM understanding of constricted Qi in the upper warmer, or stuck energy in the chest. The idea is that when energy flows freely through the body, body processes follow their natural ebbs and flows without constraint, in smooth conjunction with emotional, mental, and spiritual processes. When the Qi is stuck, the block interferes with these processes and they become constrained or interrupted. “Opening the chest” means freeing the Qi to move regularly through the chest, allowing the emotions and thoughts to flow smoothly, and restoring optimal function to the heart and the lungs.
Hawthorn, as a remedy for opening the chest, restores the free flow of Qi throughout this area. In practical terms, this means that it can treat lung and emotional problems as well as the heart. Hawthorn helps with asthma and bronchitis, conditions where there is constriction in the bronchi or other parts of the lungs. It may help with pneumonia as well. The breathing may be constricted, with or without wheezing. One may feel physical tightness or heaviness in the chest, or have the sense of something physical weighing on the chest. Hawthorn may help to release this and restore normal breathing and openness to the lungs.
Chinese Medicine associates the Lungs and the Lung meridian with grief. Hawthorn is a special ally in times of grief, particularly grief that feels like a weight on the chest, the emotional counterpart to the physical constraint that comes with a lung disorder. It helps with grief that has no physical counterpart as well, especially with grief that has that same sense of constriction that feels too vast to work through, that one cannot express freely, or that feels stuck, where one can’t move through the stages of mourning or grieving. By opening the chest, hawthorn allows the grief work and release to begin.
Similarly, hawthorn can help the person whose anger implodes rather than explodes; who keeps it all bottled up in the chest, or directs it inward at the self. (There are other remedies for those whose anger explodes outward.) Hawthorn un-bottles whatever emotions are packed too tightly into the chest and allows gentle, healing release.
Hawthorn also has a place in the healing of trauma, where the emotions may need an extra sense of safety before they begin to release. Like all members of the rose family, hawthorn combines delicate, fragrant beauty with the fierce protectiveness of its thorns, which we may need to permit us to return to the experience of trauma and begin our healing. Other herbs I have used for this include yarrow and motherwort.
Because of its role in opening the chest, hawthorn can help release anxiety, worry, and repetitive thought. When the anxiety is weighing on the chest, or the thoughts or worries seem to circulate without release, hawthorn can break the cycle. When a person seems stuck in a track and needs someone to open a door or somehow lighten the load, think of hawthorn. The hawthorn person often keeps everything too close to the chest to be able to ask for help. Hawthorn can also help someone who seems to have closed off the emotional heart to reopen to the world of emotions and relationships.
When using hawthorn as a nervine to free the emotions, I make a syrup of hawthorn and rose, decocting the hawthorn first and then adding the rose to infuse at the end before straining and adding honey or maple syrup; this preparation will help restore a sense of nurturance. The tincture also helps – and I prefer to use it as a simple – either internally (30 drops) or topically by rubbing a few drops into the center of the sternum, around the level of the armpits. Hawthorn may also be used in a foot bath. For a foot bath to heal the emotions, I combine it with Epsom salts and lavender or rose petals.
To help the lungs, hawthorn may be used as a tincture (again, as a simple, but in a fairly high dose – 50-80 drops), a decoction, or a foot bath. For a foot bath to help the lungs, I might combine hawthorn with antispasmodic herbs, such as black cohosh or valerian; with diaphoretics, such as thyme or oregano; with other calming nervines, such as catnip or lavender; with anti-inflammatory herbs, such as turmeric, ginger, licorice, or Japanese knotweed; and with Epsom salts. It is not essential to include all of these, but they are all good choices. Ginger and licorice also help harmonize the other herbs, i.e., they help the combination work better as a formula.
To help the physical heart, I usually give hawthorn as a tincture, but a foot bath combined with turmeric, ginger, and/or Japanese knotweed would also be excellent, as would a decoction combined with ginger and Japanese knotweed, with rose added at the end after the heat is turned off.
In our modern society, we often believe that rationality precludes seeing the heart or the chest as “really” involved with emotions. And yet, our language embeds the older views in phrases such as “get it off my chest” and “with all my heart”, and Traditional Chinese Medicine also integrates emotions with the body. Hawthorn works to support the physical heart and lungs, as well as the emotional well being that these older traditions associate with them. This specific combination lends invaluable support and may open our hearts to the wisdom of the older traditions.
This article is reprinted from the February, 2014 issue of Natural Herbal Living Magazine.